Just past 10:00 the morning of Wednesday, February 9, alumni of American University's School of Public Affairs (SPA) received that month's newsletter. Titled "Freed After 27 Years, Radicalizing US & Islamist Terrorists, Alumni Benefit +more," it listed recent publications and appearances by SPA faculty and alumni, just as one would expect.
By 3:45 that afternoon, however, when another SPA alumni email arrived, the tone had darkened. Instead of listing accomplishments to arouse pride, "A Timely Message from Dean Vicky Wilkins" confessed a sin to evoke shame.
The sin? That morning's email used the word "Islamist" in the subject line because the listed articles included "The Capital Insurrection and Similarities Between U.S. Domestic and Islamist Terrorists." Yet, for Dean Wilkins, its use was "offensive" because "terrorism is not exclusive to any one religion or group . . . it comes in many forms." It "does not reflect our values," and the good Dean wishes to "apologize for this mistake." In the future, they'll be "more accurate and sensitive."
One shudders to think what might have transpired had the original message substituted "Islamic Terrorists" for "Islamist." The juxtaposition is instructive, as it demonstrates the absurdity of the Wilkins's apology. In denoting and setting apart a radicalized sub-group within Islam, the word "Islamist" clarifies the writer's intent and avoids precisely the confusion and offense that Wilkins claims was committed. "Islamist" is not, as its very existence testifies, synonymous with "Islam."
Avoiding such contrived offenses requires denying language's capacity for specificity as well as any association between Islamists and terrorism. Both are patently false claims that, if imposed, undermine the ability to discover and proclaim the truth, even if – especially if – that truth runs afoul of contemporary mores. Dean Wilkins's apology serves notice to the SPA community that, henceforth, inconvenient truths will be censored.